Plight to de­light

Nuns’ be­sieged soup kitchen gets OK for move to Mis­sion

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Fa­gan

The day of judg­ment they’d waited on for nearly a year came Thurs­day, and the soup kitchen nuns of San Fran­cisco saw their prayers an­swered.

The San Fran­cisco Plan­ning Com­mis­sion voted 6-0 to al­low a pair of French nuns to move their soup kitchen from the Ten­der­loin to the Mis­sion District. The com­mis­sion­ers made the point so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally that the act­ing chair of the panel even promised to come eat their food.

The com­mis­sion had con­vened to con­sider some Mis­sion District res­i­dents’ ob­jec­tions to the nuns’ plans to re­lo­cate to a space near the 16th Street BART Sta­tion. Busi­ness ad­vi­sory me­dia star Tony Rob­bins pur­chased the space for the nuns last year af­ter their land­lord moved to evict them from their cur­rent Ten­der­loin lo­ca­tion. In the end, it was no con­test. “Amaz­ing work you do,” com­mis­sion Vice Pres­i­dent Den­nis Richards told the nuns just be­fore the vote. A City Hall hear­ing room crammed to the walls with nearly 100 peo­ple — busi­ness own­ers, clergy mem­bers, non­profit lead­ers and Mis­sion District res­i­dents — burst into ap­plause

as his gavel fell on the tally.

“I am very, very happy,” said Sis­ter Mary of the An­gels as a crowd formed around her and her soup kitchen part­ner, Sis­ter Mary Bene­dicte, and Sis­ter Mary Valerie — who flew in from their or­der’s main of­fice in Chicago to help.

“When you give your heart to the home­less, you give your heart to God, and I thank this board for ev­ery­thing,” Mary of the An­gels said.

The few op­po­nents who spoke at the meet­ing said they thought the kitchen should not be lo­cated in their neigh­bor­hood, but nonethe­less pro­fessed ad­mi­ra­tion for the nuns’ feed­ing op­er­a­tion.

“They have a good cause and a good heart,” said Gerry Ram­sey, who lives in the build­ing at 1930 Mis­sion St. where the new kitchen will be housed and was one of those urg­ing a “no” vote. “This will feed the home­less, but will it solve the over­all prob­lem of home­less­ness in our neigh­bor­hood or in our city? I’m afraid not.”

The vote was the cul­mi­na­tion of a 10-month le­gal jour­ney that be­gan when the land­lord of the Fra­ter­nite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth House soup kitchen at 54 Turk St. moved to raise the nuns’ rent by more than 50 per­cent and then evict them.

Rob­bins and other pow­er­ful friends had as­sem­bled over the past year in a huge ef­fort to res­cue the sis­ters — and be­fore the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion meet­ing Thurs­day, Rob­bins was joined at the Turk Street op­er­a­tion by Sales­force founder Marc Be­nioff, Ro­man Catholic Arch­bishop Sal­va­tore Cordileone, Mis­sion District-area Su­per­vi­sor Hil­lary Ro­nen and dozens of busi­ness own­ers and other sup­port­ers.

“Oh my. Oh my. Oh my,” Mary Bene­dicte, one of the two nuns who started the soup kitchen in 2008, said in a heavy French ac­cent. “This is so nice to see.”

“We are pray­ing for you, sis­ters,” Rob­bins said as he hugged the nuns.

“We are so happy that Mr. Tony came in to help, and we are pray­ing that every­one can work things out so we can con­tinue to help the poor peo­ple who need us,” Mary Bene­dicte said. “We don’t just feed home­less peo­ple — we feed any­one who has a need for food so they can af­ford to pay rent at the end of the month, too.

“Some peo­ple have told us they like the idea of our new soup kitchen, and that we should all do more for poor peo­ple. But some peo­ple don’t feel like that. We pray for them all.”

Ro­nen, elected in Novem­ber, said, “I can’t imag­ine a more com­pas­sion­ate, ap­pro­pri­ate ser­vice to come to the Mis­sion.” She later led off the line of speak­ers who came be­fore the com­mis­sion to sup­port the nuns.

Be­nioff called the nuns’ en­ter­prise “an ex­am­ple for the city. ... This is the kind of thing we need to do in our city of love.”

Rob­bins, a life­long ad­vo­cate for feed­ing the poor, got in­volved in the nuns’ plight in Fe­bru­ary af­ter be­ing moved by a story in The Chronicle about their land­lord’s plans. He ne­go­ti­ated a year­long re­prieve on the rent hike and evic­tion, bought them the new kitchen, and then with Be­nioff ’s help bought them a sep­a­rate place in which to live.

Since then, the nuns have talked to hun­dreds of res­i­dents in the Mis­sion District, walk­ing door-to-door and at­tend­ing neigh­bor­hood meet­ings, and Rob­bins and oth­ers drew to­gether a vol­un­teer team of lawyers and sup­port­ers to ad­vo­cate for the soup kitchen. A change.org on­line pe­ti­tion in the nuns’ sup­port had 19,351 sig­na­tures as of Thurs­day morn­ing.

The neigh­bor­hood around the soup kitchen’s new site has been a nexus for rough street life for decades, and tent camps and poverty-level res­i­den­tial ho­tels dot the area. The city’s first Nav­i­ga­tion Cen­ter, an in­ten­sive aid and shel­ter cen­ter for the home­less, is next to the build­ing that will house the soup kitchen.

The kitchen space has been empty for years, and the rest of the build­ing is home to a med­i­cal mar­i­juana of­fice and 17 con­do­mini­ums.

Some res­i­dents say they are afraid food lines will draw more home­less peo­ple and re­duce their prop­erty val­ues. An ap­peal for a public hear­ing from the home­own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion for 1930 Mis­sion St.’s res­i­dents was the rea­son the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion heard the mat­ter Thurs­day.

Oth­ers say the nuns’ op­er­a­tion will in­still a mea­sure of calm to the area around 16th and Mis­sion, not­ing that’s the ef­fect they have at their cur­rent spot. Among those is Arch­bishop Cordileone, who said the nuns bring “a moth­erly love to what they do.”

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion’s staff rec­om­mended ap­proval of the Mis­sion Street soup kitchen, point­ing out that the city’s Food Se­cu­rity Task Force has de­ter­mined that 31 per­cent of the peo­ple liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hood “are at risk for food in­se­cu­rity,” and that city pol­icy en­cour­ages sup­port for hu­man ser­vice providers in the area.

Pho­tos by Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Sis­ter Mary Bene­dicte greets Catalina Dean at the cur­rent Fra­ter­nite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth House soup kitchen in the Ten­der­loin, where the op­er­a­tion had faced a 50 per­cent rent in­crease and evic­tion.

Sales­force CEO Marc Be­nioff bear-hugs Tony Rob­bins, who stepped in on the nuns’ be­half, ne­go­ti­at­ing a re­prieve on the rent raise, then buy­ing them a new spot at 16th and Mis­sion streets.

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Tony Rob­bins, the soup kitchen nuns’ an­gel, en­joys the mo­ment with Sis­ters Mary Bene­dicte (left), Mary of the An­gels and Mary Valerie at their cur­rent soup kitchen in the Ten­der­loin.

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